Monday, March 30, 2015

Growing Up In the Race Divide (part 3)

One of the worst things about growing up in the South was learning that the last place where racism should exist was often the first place you'd find it: at church. And you wouldn't just find it there; racism was subtlety built into the structure of whole denominations. It was pervasive in that same way where you don't notice a bad smell when you've been around it too long. You can only notice it if you step away and come back or if someone points it out and you put some effort into smelling the thing they're talking about. Not that a lack of racial integration is true of churches just in the South; it's true of churches in general. As Joshua DuBois recently said, "Right now, 11:00 am on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America." And it's better now than when I was a kid.

When I was a kid...
There were no black people who lived on my street. However, if I went around my block to the next street, it was all black. Well, there may have been what was referred to as "white trash," which I didn't understand any better than I had understood "porch monkeys." The only point of context I had for the term was that there was a kid in my grade, John Spain, who was really mean and constantly in trouble and my mom used to tell me to just ignore him because he was "just white trash," so, in my mind, "white trash" meant "bully," not someone who shared the same socioeconomic position as, say, the black people on the street behind mine. [I say behind because it was the block behind my house, not the next block over in front of my house.]

And there was a marked difference between my street and the street behind my house. All of the houses on my block had nice, green lawns, even the house that was mostly unlived in. There were no cars on any of the lawns or broken bikes or toys. And there wasn't any trash. I mean actual trash, garbage, which tended to pile up at the curbs on the street behind mine. Most importantly, I suppose, at least to the people on my street, there were no black people. Ever.

Which was a problem, because I had a friend who lived on the street behind mine, and he was not allowed to come over to my house to play. I think, actually, that was more his mom than mine. There was this one time when I wanted him to come to my house and, when his mother said no, he protested, and she started whipping his butt right there and dragging him into the house. [That was not necessarily uncommon no matter what color you were.] I don't think either of us ever brought that up again.

At some point, I wanted to invite him to church with me (I think around 3rd grade), and, because it came up when I was with him, I just asked him. Without checking with my mother first. That was probably a mistake. I ran home to ask my mom; he went inside to ask his mom. His mom actually said yes; mine did not. She told me she didn't think it would be a good idea. I, of course, didn't understand why it wouldn't be a good idea.

Now, she did actually make an attempt to explain it to me. But it didn't make sense to me. See, there were actually two black kids in my church. A boy in my grade and his younger sister. They were it, though, in a church of 1200-1500. Not that I was aware of the numbers. I pointed out to my mom that, look, there were these two other kids, but she could only tell me that they were a special circumstance, something which I never found out the why of even when I was good friends with both of them later in high school.

However, I do think that my mother was probably, actually correct in her assessment of it not being a good idea. That wasn't something I understand until I was in high school, though, and which I'll talk about next time. All I knew at the time was that I had to walk back around the corner to his house and tell him he couldn't come. I had to crush his excitement (and he was excited) by saying no. It was one of the hardest, longest walks I've ever made, It was just a trip around the block, but, to my 3rd grade self, it was like walking to an execution.

Which it was, in a way, because that was the beginning of the end of our friendship. It just wasn't the same after that. I don't know if it was just me or if it was both of us, but it felt like something broke when I had to tell him that he couldn't come after all. And he wanted to know why, and all I had was, "It's not a good idea." What a horrible phrase, that.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Lyon's Legacy (a book review post)

To be honest, this book didn't work for me right from the start. And the sad thing there is that I really wanted it to. I just couldn't get past the premise. The idea here is that sometime late this century there will be born the great-granddaughter of a 1960s pop star. And that's okay except that, evidently, this guy was such a huge star that people still recognize her (all of the family) when she's walking down the street and come up to her all starstruck about her great-grandfather. But, see, we barely care about the kids of famous people, now, unless they become some kind of star in their own right. This book expects me to believe that at some point in the future we suddenly have some kind of holy reverence for the descendants of dead 60s and 70s music stars. You know, in the same way that we have reverence for the descendants of all those great stars of the early 20th century. You know, like... Oh, wait, we don't even remember the stars of 100 years ago, let alone their children.

So, yeah, the idea that anyone would expect Joanna Lyon to follow in the footsteps of her great-grandfather just didn't make any sense. I couldn't suspend my disbelief for that. Maybe that's my issue and no fault of the book.

Then, there was the issue of first person. I've mentioned before that I'm no real fan of 1st person writing (despite my love of The Dresden Files), and this book pushed all of my buttons on the reasons why I don't like 1st person. It (first person) offers way too many shortcuts, and Almazan took them all, frequently telling us how other characters feel and what they think without actually showing us the interactions to back those things up. But, at least, she didn't have Joanna stand in front of a mirror and describer herself to us, because that is the worst.

There was also the issue of the love story, which is of the insta-love variety, and another of things that push my dislike buttons. It's too frequent that we have a female protagonist telling us how she just can't find the right guy and she doesn't know how to act around guys and, besides, guys aren't that important, anyway, and BOOM! there's the perfect guy and she loves him and he loves her and there's never any question about what's going to develop. Then, once the characters have sex, the deal is sealed. That's it for life. Does that even happen in real life? Ever? And it's not that I expect a fantasy (in the sense that all writing is fantasy) to necessarily be true to life, but there could be some complexity to it other than the neurosis of the protagonist.

All in all, the book didn't feel fleshed out. There are too many gaps, too many things not followed through to their logical conclusion, too many things left unexplained.. Then, to top it all off, the book just stops. It's like Almazan got tired of writing and cut it off without any kind of resolution. Reading it on the Kindle made it even worse, because I was only at the 85% mark when Lyon's Legacy stopped. The rest of the book is promo stuff for her other works.

As I've said in other reviews, maybe these issues are with me. The book has generally very positive reviews, so, maybe, my standards are just too high. But, then, they are my standards for what is enjoyable reading for me. Either way, this book didn't work for me.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Codes (a book pre-view post)

Okay, so any of you who have been around for any length of time will know that I really don't do cover reveals or book promos or any of that stuff. Generally speaking, it's because I don't want to support a book I haven't read and which may turn out to be something I wouldn't have supported if I'd read it first. But, see, that has more to do with not having read anything by the authors who usually ask me to do that kind of stuff. I just can't pre-support a book by what amounts to an unknown quantity no matter how I feel about the actual person. Sorry, but you can be a great human being and still be a lousy writer, so I might think the world of you and still think you should find another line of work.

None of that is the case with Briane Pagel. At this point, I've been reading his stuff for years and like nearly all of what he produces. I loved Eclipse, and the farther away I get from Up So Down, the more I like it. That to say that I feel confident in announcing Pagel's new book: Codes
It's currently available for pre-order from Golden Fleece Press. Or it's supposed to be. I don't actually see a purchase link, but it is listed in their upcoming books section. Maybe it's just not live yet? Anyway, hop over to Thinking the Lions to follow Briane and get all the updates about his new book.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Growing Up In the Race Divide (part 2)

Ironically enough, my first encounter with racism had to do with myself. Let me explain!
But, first, go back and read part one of this series.

I didn't get very many birthday parties when I was a kid. In fact, I got a sum total of two. The first one was during first grade. My mom actually gave me a party at McDonald's, which is probably something that I wanted to do because what kid doesn't want to do that? Okay, kids these days probably don't want to do that so much but, back in the 70s, it was a cool, new thing to do. The problem was that, due to the cost, I was limited to something like only five friends. Or four. Some small number. It meant making some hard choices as to whom to invite.

Three of the people were a given. Two of them, the boys, were my best friends all through elementary school. Well, that elementary school, at any rate. The other was a girl who would end being my longest running friend. Basically, she and I grew up together from kindergarten until we graduated high school. Of course, I didn't know that was going to be the case in first grade, but it says something, I suppose, that she was one of my best friends even then. All three of them were at that party.

There may or may not have been one other person there but, if there was, I can't remember who it was.

The issue, though, arose over the "last person" I invited.

I remember the discussion with my mother about whom I was going to invite. On the list were the three (or four) people who ended up coming, and I had one more person to go. I was conflicted. I could either invite Derrick, a black boy in my class at school and next in line on the "friend scale" after the people I had already invited, or I could invite Chris, a boy who had lived down the block from me before we'd moved and had gone to my school until he moved. He had been one of my close playmates for a couple of years, but I hadn't seen him since he left my school. Playdates weren't a thing back in 1977 so inviting him to my party seemed to be the only way to get to see him again. I ended up choosing Chris over Derrick.

That turned into a problem. Chris didn't show up to the party, so my mom wanted me to call Derrick to see if he could come because she had to pay for the guest whether there was a person there or not. So there we were at the party and my mom was telling me to call Derrick and also telling me about how upset Derrick had been not to be invited and that Derrick's mom had even called her and said that I didn't invite Derrick because he was black. Basically, my mom was shifting the racism comment onto me.

Of course, she hadn't told me any of this ahead of time. She waited until we were actually having the party. Evidently, she'd suspected Chris wasn't going to show because his mother hadn't RSVP'd, and my mom was upset about wasting the money. The problem is that I can't remember whom she'd wanted me to invite in the first place. I remember there being a discussion about it, but the only part I remember is that I wanted Chris to be at the party more than I wanted Derrick at the part because it had been close to a year since I'd seen him.

The party was... traumatic. The only thing I remember is being on the phone, listening to it ringing and ringing, and my mom telling me that I didn't invite Derrick because he was black. And crying. I was pretty horrified, too, at the thought that Derrick would think I left him out because he was black, which just wasn't true. And, of course, no one answered the phone. Because Derrick's mom had taken him to do something fun and special because he didn't get invited to my party. The party I can't remember.

I don't remember our friendship being the same after that, and I have always always felt bad about what happened over that birthday party. Sure, yeah, I know it wasn't my fault. I was barely over a hand old. But that doesn't change the emotion involved. In general, when they ask that question about things you would change in your past if you could, I don't have a lot of those things, but this is one. I would certainly go back and invite Derrick instead. If I'd known how important it was to him, I wouldn't have cared about Chris being there at all.

But I didn't know.

It was this relationship, though, that inspired the character of Derrik in "Christmas on the Corner." See, I did grow up in the South, and I did have black friends. Let me rephrase that: I had friends who also happened to be black, because I never thought of my friends in colors. They were just my friends. Derrik is a reflection of that dynamic and, I think, an important one. But Sam won't be having any birthday parties that Derrik doesn't get invited to.

Friday, March 20, 2015

the curious incident of the dog in the night-time (a book review post)

I read a lot. Yeah, obvious statement, I know. Because I read a lot, I don't really come across all that many books anymore that I just don't want to put down. Not that I want to put books down, but I don't often find a book that I just want to keep reading and don't want to stop reading when I need to. I don't even find one of those once a year, anymore. This was one of those books. If I could have, I would have read straight through this one without stopping. Darn that thing called life that demands that you do things like take kids to school and cook dinner.

Also, I am not much of a fan of first person writing, as I've stated many times before. It's not that I have a thing against first person in-and-of itself, it's just that, with the flood of indie writers, first person has become a shortcut to bad writing. And writing that all sounds the same from author to author. I tend to be very wary of first person, especially in debut novels.

However, first person was completely necessary to the story in the curious incident of the dog in the night-time. That's the way I like to see first person used, as something that adds to the story itself, not as an easy out to get out of the intricacies of description and explanation. This book has a unique voice, and it is that voice that makes it necessary to the story. No, I'm not going to explain, because you should just read the book and find out for yourself.

The other thing I really liked about the book (other than the unique voice) is that the story is not really the story. I mean, the narrator thinks he's telling one story, but, really, he's telling another story entirely, and it was pretty amazing. The way the author handled it, I mean.

That's really all I have to say, I suppose. Yeah, not a single negative about this one. I enjoyed it immensely and will probably look at re-reading it in a few years and see if I still feel the same way about it. I don't re-read often, so that ought to tell you something.

Look, just go read the book. Oh, one thing, if you have any desire to read any Sherlock Holmes, you should go read The Hound of the Baskervilles, first, before you read this. That is, you should if you don't want spoilers.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Growing Up In the Race Divide (part 1)

I grew up in the South. I don't mean the quasi-South like Missouri or Tennessee; I mean the deep South. Louisiana. Even so, I grew up without any idea that race should ever be an issue. I'm not sure why this was so other than that my parents weren't particularly racist. They weren't particularly un-racist, either. For instance, at some point when I was a kid, I remember my dad using the term "porch monkeys," and I had no idea what he was talking about. When I asked, because I couldn't find the monkeys, no one would explain to me what he meant, so, I suppose, he was ashamed enough for having said it (and my mom ashamed of him) that no one would explain it. Later, when someone did finally explain it to me, I still didn't understand. The term just didn't make sense to me; it was years before I understood that it was a racial slur.

The Oscars this year, "the best and whitest," have me thinking a lot about race and how and where I grew up. I am not much a product of my environment. For instance, I don't have an accent. Someone asked me recently about how long it took me to get rid of it after I moved to California, but, see, I never had an accent. And, no, there is no explanation for that, because my family most definitely does have an accent. In fact, I can barely understand my brother anymore.

I went to a desegregated elementary school. Of course, I didn't know that. I'm not sure any of us knew that when we were kids. I don't know for sure if it made a difference, though. The school was mixed, sure, but the classes, on the whole, were not. I never realized that until now in thinking about all of this. Supposedly, the classes were divided based upon ability and, to some extent, I'm sure that's true, because there were a few black kids in my classes, but, mostly, the black kids were in one class, and the white kids were in the other class. I'm pretty sure there were no white kids in any of the "black" classes. The white kids got a white teacher, and the black kids got a black teacher. Except 1st grade: In first grade, both teachers were black, but that was the only black teacher I had until I got to middle school.

The principal, though, was black: Mr. Hudson. I loved Mr. Hudson. By the time I was in first grade, he called me Dr. Leon. I was Dr. Leon to him all the way through 4th grade, my last year at that school. He said it was because of all my brains. Or something like that. He was always very serious with me and would shake my hand when he saw me in the hall. Evidently, race wasn't an issue for him, and he was the first adult male I admired other than my grandfather.

Middle school... I went to an experimental middle school. It was following in the footsteps of the experimental high school I would soon go to. These were some of the first magnet schools in the country and an aberration in Louisiana. I suppose the logic was that if they could get magnet schools to work in Louisiana, which was (and still is) among the worst educated states in the country, then they could get them to work anywhere. And they did work. CPMHS was in the top ten high schools in the country the entire time I was there. In Louisiana.

So, yeah, I had some black teachers in middle school and in high school... but they weren't academic teachers. They were P.E. teachers and an art teacher. The only exception to that was my biology teacher in high school. However, she barely counts, because they let her go half way through the year, because she was not able to handle the academic load of teaching the AP Bio II class. This class was geared toward academic decathlon training, so they had to find someone able to teach that class above all else. Just to be clear, she was not the only teacher let go from Magnet because the teacher couldn't handle the academic load in the advanced classes, and it was her first year teaching.

Also, to be clear, there were some black teachers of academic classes at my high school, but I was in all honors and advanced classes, and they didn't teach any of those.

My high school didn't have the regular team sports associated with high school. No football, no basketball, no baseball. We had what our principal called "Olympic sports": tennis, fencing, track. I only say that to reinforce that this was an academic school. There was testing to get in and you had to maintain a certain GPA to stay there. Each year, we lost about half of the freshman class. As opposed to my elementary school, at which the more advanced classes were more than 90% white, there were plenty of black students at my high school, and they weren't there to play sports. These were smart kids who had done the work to get into a kind of elite school. As I was reminded frequently by my friends at other high schools, we were the "nerd school."

Mostly, though, I want to focus on my elementary school, since it was a typical school in Shreveport. [I would like to think that my high school was more merit-based in its decisions on teacher hiring, and I think that it probably was because of the emphasis on the academic decathlon.] It makes me sad, now, thinking back, that my school got by by following the letter of the law while discarding the spirit of it, and I'm sure that my school was indicative of the "way things were." Probably not just in Louisiana, either. I have to assume that this was the way all schools got around desegregation all through the South. "Sure, we'll have mixed schools, but no one said anything about the classes."

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Influence of a Life

Terry Pratchett died.

I don't quite know what I think about this, because I haven't quite come to grips with how I feel about it. I mean, it's not like I was what you'd call a fan of Pratchett's writing in that I haven't read any of the Discworld books. The only thing by him that I've read is Good Omens, and I read that because of Neil Gaiman.

However, there is no denying the influence he's had, through Gaiman, on my writing "career." In fact, it would be safe to say that without Prachett, I would never have started writing. It was one of the first things I talked about way back in the time before time when I started this blog: 400 Words. So there it is, even without ever really reading anything Prachett wrote, I would never have decided to "sit down and do the writing" without him. He gave it a context for me as something that was possible.

Knowing that he's gone has left me with a... hollow feeling just below my sternum. You could say that I'm sad, and I am, but it's not exactly like sadness. It's just the feeling of something missing that ought to be there. It's left me feeling more than a bit out of sorts.

It's also made me think about "influence" and what that means. How we influence people. How often we are deliberate in our influence. What impact do we, do I, have on the people around me? All of that but, specifically, as a writer. What do I want my influence to be?

Of course, when writers talk about influence, they are usually talking about what influenced their style. Or their genre. If they are talking about the why, it's usually in some less practical way of "When I read Tolkien as a kid, I wanted to grow up and create worlds just like he did." And I have had unmistakable influences on the things I write about. There's a direct nod to Lewis in The House on the Corner and one to Tolkien in Christmas on the Corner and, when I needed to develop my villain for Shadow Spinner and was trying to think of the scariest thing I'd ever "encountered," it was a character of Gaiman's that came to mind.

But, still, none of that would have mattered if I had never sat down to do the writing, and I have no one else to look to for that influence other than Gaiman for telling the story about how Pratchett started out. Gaiman wouldn't have had the story to tell without Pratchett.

All of that to say that I feel a great sense of loss at Pratchett's passing. And, yes, while everyone knew it was coming (of course, death is coming for everyone, so we knew it was coming), this is one of those battles where knowing doesn't help anything. I knew my grandfather was going to die when I was 20, but it was still devastating when it happened, and we knew my mother-in-law was going to die, but that still rocked our family. I wish I could tell his family the impact that he had on me. Not that it really helps, except that it does.

Not to mention, if there's anyone out there that I may one day look like, it's probably Terry Pratchett.
According to my wife, I just need to make a shift to black.
And, yes, that really is how I go out. I had no idea about Pratchett and his signature black fedora until I was writing this post.